Columns > Published on October 14th, 2020

Too Young for Horror?

Most of us saw someone get decapitated a little before we were ready.

Most of us had a parent who didn’t read a movie description, an uncle who liked to show us monster movies and fill us with sugar, and some of us just managed to fight sleep long enough to go deep into cable channels and see heads rolling, someone punching right through a dude, or maybe even a bit of nudity.

Chances are you saw some horror before you could totally handle it.

The message I’ve got for you today is that this is not only okay, it might be the best way to experience horror. “Experience horror” being the fartsy way of saying, “Watch a guy’s face melt while you’re still in footie pajamas.”

Are You Ready For It?

“Experience horror” being the fartsy way of saying, “Watch a guy’s face melt while you’re still in footie pajamas.”

Horror you’re ready for isn’t scary. I don’t just mean that in a jump-scare kind of way. I just mean that the more life you experience, the more things you do, the less unknown there is, and the harder it is to connect with that feeling of fear.

The X-Files had me pissing myself as a kid. I was pretty sure that my chances of being abducted by aliens were somewhere between 100% and 200% (I guess 200% means I’d get abducted twice).

Since then I’ve been seasoned. Beaten down, if you will. The imagination doesn’t keep me up at night so much as which tasks I’ll need to finish for work tomorrow. I now fall asleep watching The X-Files most nights. The only horror to be found is the episode where the smoking man is a failed novelist. That one hits hard, but in a different way.

A horror experience you’re ready for? It might be fun, it might be enjoyable. But it’s not scary.

If the purpose of horror is to scare us, then you might be missing out on a rite of passage if you don't get a taste before you're ready.

Getting Your Hands On Something

There’s a transgression involved in watching an R-rated movie when you’re way too young, and that makes the viewer more complicit. It’s not like I just happened upon this thing, it’s something I made an effort to experience. That adds something to the mix.

If you read Stephen King’s IT in middle school, you’re a little young, and pushing through those 1000+ pages is a feat. It’s an act. It’s intentional. It makes you a part of the horror.

As an adult I can read and watch whatever the fuck I want. Getting my hands on some hardcore horror is no more difficult than getting a cozy mystery with a pun title like “Cat’s Out of The Baguette."

As an adult, you’re not doing anything wrong when you read and watch horror. As a kid, you’re transgressing. It helps. It heightens the experience.

Keeping Kids From Horror Changes Horror

Horror's dirty secret used to be that it was often R-Rated while truly being aimed at 15 year-old boys. Friday the 13th Part 2 has one of the all-time most gratuitous nude scenes in the history of a franchise that basically invented the needless topless moment.

Horror's dirty secret used to be that it was often R-Rated while truly being aimed at 15 year-old boys.

It’s nice to have new, more mature horror movies that are “adult” because they hit on some more complex topics and ideas rather than being “adult” because a woman walks into a lake to skinny dip, by herself, at night, for no apparent reason of her own or of the plot’s necessity. Just clothes off, in the water, back out, and then the movie continues.

Big horror movies and lots of writers have abandoned some of the bullshit, but I wonder, what's the effect when horror is no longer made to scare people who are "too young"? Hereditary, It Follows, The VVitch, Ready Or Not, Raw, Us, The Platform, many of them seem to be less truly frightening than they “really make you think.” A 15 year-old isn't going to enjoy Hereditary with the possible exception of a very brief, shocking moment or two.

Mainstream horror may have taken a criticism-based turn, maybe somewhere around the early 90's and the publication of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film as well as The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. At that time, there was a lot of academic study of "low" culture, and it seemed like a new thing, looking at "low" culture, especially horror and slashers, with a critical eye.

I'm of the opinion that the trend of looking at low culture with a critical eye is just about as tired now as the trend of making horror for 15 year-olds was in the mid-90's. It's one thing to look at Chopping Mall with a gender studies bent. That may have interesting results. Because it's not meant to be cultural commentary, it may say something about culture that's less...careful. Less manufactured.

Looking at The VVitch as a film critic, perhaps a social critic? The movie seems specifically designed for that purpose.

Sometimes you want to watch something adult and thoughtful, and horror is a great way to create social commentary...and sometimes you want to watch killbots chase middle-aged “teens” around a closed shopping mall, bursting their heads apart with lasers. Not every experience lends itself towards writing a thesis.

I’m not saying it’s one or the other, Get Out or Friday the 13th Part 2, take your pick. Both movies exist, and both types continue to be made. I’m saying that we'd lose something without horror designed to scare people who really are a little young to be in front of the screen or to have the book in their hands. That audience matters to the genre as a whole. If horror isn't built for people who are "too young," we'll lose some of the most horrifying stuff. Or at least a lot of Tom Savini gore effects (which deserve a wing in the Smithsonian). 

Can You Still Feel The Feels?

Age is the most common way to get to horror before you’re supposed to. The Stuff is scary as hell when you’re 9, hilarious and confusing as an adult. But getting to it young isn’t the only option. It’s not the only way to access that same feeling of unreadiness.

During a family medical crisis, I wasn’t really ready for blood and guts. Thinking about all the stuff inside the skin was always a reminder of something I didn’t want to think about. Thinking about death was hard. Heightening the fear with a real life connection? That shit works.

Reading about a plane crash on a plane is an experience.

Watching Evil Dead the week before you go to a cabin in the woods is perfect.

Look for the places, the times when you’re not ready, and see if you can reconnect with the real impact of horror. By “real impact of horror” I mean “Sheer terror of watching people in a flying metal tube plunge out of the sky while they burn alive.”

Try it. Find something you’re afraid of, find a book about that shit, and mash it all up. Think about reading horror as more than just paging through a book. Think about it as an experience.

What if you took a drive into the country, parked at a rest stop near a farm, and read Clown in a Cornfield? With your car doors unlocked.

What if you read Stephen King’s IT near an open, flowing drainage pipe?

You might not get back to that feeling of watching Friday the 13th Part 2 when you were WAY too young. But you’ll feel something.

Get Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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